In 1636, the Dutch became the first settlers of the hinterland of New Amsterdam (now New York City) where they purchased territory in the Gowanus Bay area from the Montauk Indians and called it Brueckelen (meaning broken land). It was incorporated as a village by that name in 1816. It was not until 1834 that the village became known by its present name, incorporating as the City of Brooklyn.
By 1826, Brooklyn was a village of fewer than 10,000 inhabitants. King George IV, eldest son of George III, whom we may recall from our Revolutionary War, was on the throne of England. King Charles X, youngest brother of Louis XVI, who actively supported our Revolution with men, money, and arms, was reigning in France. John Quincy Adams was the sixth President of the United States. His father, John Adams, the second President, and Thomas Jefferson, the third President, both died on Independence Day, 4 July 1826. There were no telegraph lines, telephones, automobiles, radios, or even express trains in those days, so that it was several days later that the news of the deaths of these two national heroes reached Brooklyn where workmFaten were building the first Saint John’s church.
The origin of the parish is unique. It was planned, its church erected and paid for, by the Reverend Evan Malbone Johnson, who became the first rector. He operated it at his own expense until it was purchased by the congregation in 1832. The first parishioners were members of Saint Ann’s Church, which was founded in 1784 and has been called the "mother" church of Episcopalians in Brooklyn. In the sermon preached on the occasion of our 100th Anniversary, Fred Clarke, an historian, says of these bygone days: "Saint Ann’s Church, which was organized in 1784, was on Sands Street, having been named for Ann Sands (not Saint Anne, mother of the Blessed Virgin, as might be supposed), who was largely instrumental in its founding. Sands Street was a very fashionable street in those days and my own grandmother told me how much the New York girls valued the chance of walking along Sands Street Sunday afternoons with a naval midshipman." As we said, it is a bygone day, and we are not likely to see those strollers in the Heights again.
In the original 1826 Parish Register Doctor Johnson vividly describes the early days of Saint John’s in somewhat archaic language: "In consequence of the increasing growth of the Village of Brooklyn, the design of building a new Episcopal Church was formed by Evan Malbone Johnson in the spring of A.D. 1826. In the course of that summer, he caused a plain, wooden building to be erected at the corner of Washington and Johnson Streets, said building is fifty feet by fifty. It was first opened by him for Divine Service on Sunday the 24th of September 1826. The pulpit was supplied by him and the Reverend John A. Hicks, alternately, during the winter. In March Doctor Johnson removed from New York, where he had been settled twelve years, to Brooklyn. I took sole charge of the congregation. The Communion was first administered on Easter Day (April 15) A.D. 1827 to nineteen communicants. (All nineteen of those first communicants are named in the parish records. While Slavery was not abolished in New York State until July 4, 1827, it is interesting to note that several of these people were listed as “colored”.) The church was consecrated by the Right Reverend Bishop Hobart on the 10th day of July and called Saint John’s Church. May God bless ‘his happy work’."
In point of fact the parish was founded in September of 1826. First Confirmation and Holy Communion were administered Easter Day, 15 April 1827 (only seven months from the opening) and the congregation was incorporated by election on Easter Monday, April 16th, of that same year. An excerpt from the Certificate of Incorporation is presented: "Recorded March 19th 1827, L. Bi, page 13. ... all persons of full age belonging to the Church Congregation or Society at the Village of Brooklyn in the County of Kings... met at said church for the purpose of incorporating themselves under the act entitled: An Act to provide for the Incorporation of Religious Societies’ and the act to annul same. Monday in the week called Easter Week was in like manner fixed on as the day on which the said offices of Church Wardens and Vestry-men shall annually hereafter cease and their successors in office be chosen and the name or title of ‘The Rector, Church Wardens and Vestrymen of Saint John’s Church at Brooklyn’ was in like manner fixed on and agreed to as that by which the said Church Congregation or Society shall be known in law."
The cornerstone was actually laid on 9 May 1827 and bears the following inscription: "St. John’s Church was erected by Evan Malbone Johnson, AD. 1826, the cornerstone of which was laid by the Masonic Fraternity on the 9th day of May, John Henry Hobart then being Bishop of the Diocese." It must be remembered that in those days what is now the large Diocese of Long Island was but a part of the vast Diocese of New York. A portion of the original cornerstone, although hardly legible, is on the right wall as you enter the present vestibule.
Doctor Evan Johnson was a person of great importance in the growing village and was affectionately known as "Domine Johnson." He was born in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1792 and was ordained by the Right Reverend Alexander V. Griswold, Bishop of Massachusetts, in 1813.
The rectory was on the corner of Johnson and Pearl Streets. It is easy to suppose that Johnson Street was named after the popular first rector and it is still so named downtown between the present main post office and the Supreme Court grounds. In addition to his work as rector of Saint John’s Church, he took a keen interest in all community activities. In particular, he was a leader in the cause of the "common" school (today we would call it a public school), which was opposed by many of the older residents. Education by a governess or tutor, or at private and "finishing" schools was the order of the day. And they were all available, of course, to those who could afford them. Finally, in 1831, the one school district was divided and Brooklyn was provided with three common schools. This, however, was far from satisfactory to Doctor Johnson, who was Chairman of the Citizen’s Committee, since old private school structures were used and no plans made for the erection of new buildings.
He was also active in the organization of the Brooklyn Sunday School Union, which was launched at the Apprentices’ Library by representatives of the Presbyterian, Baptist, Reformed Dutch and Saint John’s churches-an early example of ecumenical cooperation. This Sunday School Union grew steadily and mightily and reached such, proportions that eventually all public schools in Brooklyn were closed on a Thursday in June for its annual parade. The event was marked by thousands of children with flags, banners and a few "Episcopal processional crosses" marching from Flatbush Avenue around the Plaza, past reviewing stands in front of the magnificent Grand Army Arch, and into Prospect Park. It was there that church, school and city officials (almost always the mayor) made tributes and presented various awards to the participating groups. Like so many civic traditions and celebrations, this one too has been relegated to the annals of history and memory.
The Long Island Bible Society was also organized as a joint endeavor of the various denominations of Long Island, and Doctor Johnson played an active part. He also served as chaplain in the Grand Masonic Lodge. A publication describing Brooklyn Village records that Saint John’s Sunday School owned the biggest library in the Village, and that the church officers made it available to the public. By 1832 this library contained 300 volumes. It later was one of the nuclei of the present Brooklyn public library system.
It is fortunate that we still have the earliest vestry meeting records in good condition, as there is a great gap until quite recently. On 23 March 1827, at one of the first vestry meetings, it was voted to "accept proposals of the Reverend Mister Johnson for the purchase of the church and grounds," although this was not done until 1832. Pew purchase prices were set from $30 to $200, depending on location, and corresponding quarterly rents from $1.00 to $5.00. In 1843 Doctor Johnson sent an important message to the vestry about seating in the church: "I would wish the vestry to remember that it is the glory of the gospel of Christ that it is to be preached to the poor-and that the church extends her arms to embrace as well the low as the high, the poor as the rich, the servant as the master. How can all such enjoy the blessings offered to them by the Church if by any arrangement a portion of these classes be excluded from the place where is offered up the Holy Sacrifice? My object in sending you this communication is, to recommend that you take such order and give it publicity, that no person whatsoever of any description shall ever apply at our Church and not be supplied with a seat, (gratuitously, if necessary), as long as we have any room. I would have the sexton instructed to remain at the door until after the second lesson, and to show to a seat, every person who makes application for one." The pew rental system obviously had the effect of excluding some people of little means and the vestry was seemingly holding fast to a stubborn system of paid rents for Sunday worship. The vestry, however, concurred with the rector. It is not known at what date pews became rent-free and open to all, but this was a first step in that direction.
In 1827, the first sexton received $40 per annum payable quarterly. In the same year, the vestry approved payment of $7.45 for painting the church! In the following year the collection at Easter was $3.00, at Whitsunday $3.31, and at Christmas $3.60. A recurring theme throughout all these early vestry meetings was the failure of communicants to pay their quarterly pew rents on time. The operating expenses of the church had to be met in this way whether or not people were in their pews on Sunday. This financial arrangement is not dissimilar to the present-day pledge system with envelopes for weekly offerings, which are expected to be used regardless of attendance, if monetary obligations are to be met. Nor yet is it unlike the method of church dues used generally in Caribbean countries, which must be met monthly.
Doctor Johnson was at Saint John’s Church until July 1847, when he resigned. He had founded the parish and watched it grow in membership, strength, involvement in the larger life of the diocese and church, and grow in usefulness in so many ways to the community. He was a rector without pay for twenty-one years, by his own request, and enjoyed above all the building